Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman takes his seat Thursday in the 113th Congress, facing big issues — budget cutbacks, the national debt limit and gun control — with a remarkably diverse freshman class and, he believes, a will to get things done.
"There's a real desire to try harder and work together," Huffman said in a recent interview at his home in the hills of San Rafael.
A former environmental attorney who is coming off six years in the state Assembly, Huffman, 48, is joining a body widely demeaned by the public and noted for lack of accomplishment.
Congress got an 18 percent approval rating in the Gallup Poll two weeks ago, an improvement from the record-low 10 percent posted twice earlier this year but still far below the 33 percent average rating since 1974.
The exiting Congress, characterized by partisan gridlock, was poised to become the least productive on record, passing 219 bills as of Friday, compared with 383 bills approved by the previous Congress.
But Huffman, who is courtroom- and campaign-trail-smooth of speech and admits to a streak of optimism, believes that his 84-member freshman class represents a break from the older, dysfunctional order.
The freshmen of 2011 "wanted to burn down the House and grind the institution to a halt" — and they succeeded, said Huffman, who represents the new 2nd Congressional District, stretching 350 miles along Highway 101 from Sausalito to Crescent City.
Having met all the freshmen of 2013 at three orientation sessions, Huffman said the 48 new Democrats and 35 Republicans intend to do better. "The mantra is: Solve problems and get things done," he said.
On gun control, a pressing issue in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings, Huffman said Congress has a chance to do "something sensible" after years of avoiding the issue.
"You've even got Republicans saying it's time to engage on this," he said, acknowledging that Democrats and President Barack Obama earlier had backed off gun control.
Huffman said he supports a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, the latter a measure Democrats intend to introduce Thursday.
"Those are for combat," Huffman said, calling them unneeded for hunting or personal protection.
Hailed for its diversity, the 48 freshman Democrats include 16 women and 13 minority men, accounting for 60 percent of the party's newcomers and making white men a minority of the caucus for the first time in history.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in November that the Democratic Caucus in 2013 would have 61 women, 43 blacks, 26 Latinos, 11 Asians and one bisexual and five gay members.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said diversity among Democrats "is important and is truly reflective of the American people."
"Members of Congress working together with different backgrounds and life experiences helps bring good ideas to the table," said Thompson, who represents Santa Rosa and will be sworn in for his eighth term Thursday.
But with Republicans still in control of the House — with a 233-200 edge over Democrats — some say the new gender and ethnic mixture may make no difference.
"The minority party has no power. You might as well accept it from the beginning," said Doug Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney who made the same move as Huffman, from the Assembly to Congress, in 1982.